Duanwad Pimwana is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Thai literature. As enigmatic as she is celebrated, Pimwana is known for her incisive social observation. Having built her career initially as a journalist and short-story writer, she’s now published nine books in Thai, spanning a variety of genres. Two of these, the novel Bright and the short-story collection Arid Dreams, will be published by Two Lines Press and the Feminist Press respectively this April. Both texts were translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
Pimwana’s narratorial perspective is that of a fly on the wall, but one with a loud, pumping, mammalian heartbeat. She is a master of conveying the melancholy contradictions that characterize human existence. Her characters often frustrate the readers’ sympathy, blurring the boundaries between such facilities as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “supporting character.” We take on their coexistent hope and despair, accompanying them as they’re tossed to the mercy of chance and fortune.
In Bright, six-year-old Kampol Changsamran gets left behind by both of his parents when an episode of violence and infidelity drives them both to flee their village and reestablish their lives elsewhere with other partners. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how young little Kampol is; he steps into his newfound freedom with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and wisdom that transcends his age. But in other moments, it’s all too clear that his maturity is a function of necessity. His dearest wish is to be once again embraced by the love and security of family. His neighbors, meanwhile, most of them hardly able to fill their own bellies, show a full spectrum of responses to their new collective charge.
Chaos: A Fable by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, AmazonCrossing, 2019.
Imagine finding yourself in an unknown country, with no understanding of how you got there and the taste of dread in your mouth, and you’ll have a good sense of how it feels to read acclaimed Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novella Chaos: A Fable. According to the publisher’s synopsis, Chaos sets out to be both a “provocative morality tale” and a “high-tech thriller,” and, indeed, it seems to land somewhere between the two: think John le Carré “espionoir” meets Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, Chaos is Rey Rosa’s nineteenth novel (the seventh to be translated into English). It follows Mexican writer Rubirosa as he reconnects with an old friend in Morocco and, by agreeing to a seemingly simple favor, finds himself drawn into an international plot to end human suffering by bringing about a technological apocalypse. Chaos indeed.
For a novel titled Chaos, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found the reading experience itself disorientating; so much so, in fact, that as soon as I read the last line, I had to flick back to page one and read it all again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (Fortunately, at only 197 pages, you can pretty much do so in one sitting.) Starting—mundanely enough—at a book fair in Tangier, the novella takes the reader on a breath-taking ride via the United States and Greece to Turkey. And I’m sure that, even on a second read, there were allusions and references that went far over my head.
We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.
Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil
It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.
Late last year, Benjamin Moser’s critical NYT review of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art occasioned a rousing debate in the literary translation community about the nature of translation quality and criticism. The review prompted a scathing letter to the editor from a group of translation heavyweights, including Susan Bernofsky and Lawrence Venuti. Tim Parks weighed in with an NYR Daily piece, “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” which outlined some challenges of criticizing translation and defended the effort.
In this conversation, Parks elaborates on the role of the translation critic, clarifies his notion of mistakes, and explains how translation theory affects his criticism. Raucous debates about quality and criticism have characterized conversations about translation for centuries. The conversation continues here.
Allison Braden (AB): At a translation conference, I heard a panelist argue that mistakes in translation, as long as they don’t significantly impede the author’s message, are irrelevant. He then went on to say that he tries to avoid making mistakes as much as possible. Later, an audience member argued that as her career as a translator has progressed, she’s found herself making more “mistakes,” because of the increased latitude that experience affords. For a group that would seem to value semantic precision, there appears to be an alarming blurriness around the notion of mistakes versus agency. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two?
Tim Parks (TP): A literary text comes alive when a reader can bring to it the kind of competence and cultural reference that gives sense to the words. Since a translator is someone who reads a foreign text for those of us who can’t read it directly ourselves, we hope that he or she is such a reader and has that competence and knowledge. Of course becoming a deep and accurate reader in a language that is not your mother tongue is not an easy proposition. Almost all of us have our lacunae. So there are going to be times when the translator misses something, doesn’t recognize that a certain phrase is an idiom, doesn’t realize that in a certain context this or that word can have an unusual connotation; then when they write down their version we have a mistake. The importance of the mistake will depend on its place in the text and the kind of text it is. It may indeed be irrelevant or minor. But equally it may be crucial. Or frequent small mistakes may eventually amount to an overall difference in tone or feeling. Whatever the case, mistakes—and I can’t see one can call them anything but that—are hardly desirable.
Returning though to the “blurriness” you observe in regard to what is hardly a difficult question, one can’t help feeling it arises from a sense of vulnerability about the translator’s competence in the source language. There is a tendency these days to suggest that you only need have a basic grip on a foreign language and a neat turn of phrase in your English and you can translate successfully, even win prizes. Or that it’s enough to do an MA in Translation Studies. But language is a rich feast and literature exploits and intensifies that richness. We love a fine piece of writing for the abundance of allusion and wit and suggestion it conjures up, and the feeling that when we read it again we will find more. It’s not easy to arrive at the kind of second-language competence where one genuinely gets all this, or even most of it. So some translators are understandably defensive or vague. READ MORE…
This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards.
Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco
The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.
To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.
The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.
Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong
This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.
To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.
The tides of cultural change are reflected in the literary festivals of Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as our editors point us to the increased awareness of both past misrepresentation and the lack of representation altogether. As more dismal political news from around the world rolls in, such instances of rectification and progress from the cultural sphere are a source of light and comfort.
Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain
April might be the cruellest month for some glum, English poets, but in Spain, spring has arrived and ushered in a blossoming book fair season. Alicante has just wrapped up its 2019 Feria del Libre with a refreshing theme of Mujeres de Palabra, celebrated from March 28 to April 7. The long week was packed full of readings, signings, booths, and workshops. This year, many activities were aimed at younger readers.
Among many great Spanish writers was a personal favourite, Murcian writer Miguel-Ángel Hernández, whose 2013 novel Intento de Escapada (Anagrama) was translated into English by Rhett McNeil (Hispabooks, 2016) as Escape Attempt and was also translated into German, French, and Italian. Compared to both Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Hernández’s El dolor de los demás (Anagrama, 2018), which he was signing at the fair, is now high on the reading list.
This week, we’ve come across a spoil of literary riches! Big international names come to show in eastern USA, cultural collectives take full advantage of the historic wonders of Lebanon, and, in France, the académie Goncourt is always up to something. Our editors at the front are here to share the treasures.
Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:
New York may be the undisputed publishing capital of the US, but the nearby city of Boston, just a few hours away by car, is also home to a thriving literary scene. Birthplace of the 19th century American Transcendentalism movement (notable members include Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott), Boston boasts one of the country’s richest literary traditions, and it remains a hub for writers and independent booksellers today.
Early last year, one of the city’s most prominent bookstores, the Brookline Booksmith, launched the Transnational Literature Series in partnership with Words Without Borders and the Forum Network. The series “focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation,” and hosts conversations between writers and their translators. Previous Transnational Literature Series events have featured Ivana Bodrožić with translator Ellen Elias-Bursać, Olga Tokarczuk with translator Jennifer Croft, and Luljeta Lleshanaku with translator Ani Gjika.
Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.
In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.
Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?
Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.
I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.
This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.
We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.
Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?
Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.
Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar by
Whatever the cosmopolitan politics of many people living in cities like London, New York, or Paris, the majority of museums in such places continue to struggle with the colonizing narratives forwarded not only by the layout of the physical space of the museum—a prime example being the room dedicated solely to Egypt, separate from the rest of the African continent—but also by the fact that many objects within these collections were stolen, looted, or otherwise removed from the communities that produced them.
Should these objects be returned or, in an argument that many see as dripping with colonial paternalism, are they indeed “safer” under the protection of Western institutions? One only need think of the ongoing controversy surrounding the so-called “Elgin” Marbles and their possible repatriation, or any number of recent developments concerning Native American peoples in the United States requesting the return of sacred objects, to understand how such objects touch on themes like intellectual and cultural sovereignty in the twenty-first century. The “Elgin” Marbles may have inspired Keats’s meditation on truth and beauty, but how would these same marbles appear, at a distance, to a poet writing from Greece during the Romantic period or in the age of Brexit? How would the nature of the marbles’ famed “truth” and “beauty” appear to someone who understood them as a piece of cultural heritage that had been looted for the express benefit of a cosmopolitan other? What would the return, or so-called repatriation, of such objects mean not only for those who have been robbed of such items, but for the descendants of those who stole them in the first place?
This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.
Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:
On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…